Photo Credit: Togbui Adeladza II, Paramount Chief
of the Anlo-Ewe and His Royal entourage entering the
Durbar Grounds of Hogbetsotso Festival at Anloga,
the capital of the Anlo-Ewe traditional state.

Foundation Course

Introduction to Anlo-Ewe
Culture and History


C. K. Ladzekpo

Brief History Of Anlo-Ewe People

I am an Anlo-Ewe, born and raised on the island of Anyako, the largest among a cluster of island settlements surrounded by the salty waters of the Keta lagoon. These island settlements are collectively known as a major island group of the Anlo-Ewe traditional state. A major coastal group is at south of the Keta lagoon along the shores of the Atlantic ocean and a major inland group is at the north of the lagoon.

Anlo-Ewe traditional state is presently among a political union of distinct traditional states known as the republic of Ghana. The political union was created by the British government during the period of the historic Western European partitioning of Africa. It was originally called the Gold Coast and was renamed Ghana when it achieved self government on March 6, 1957. Anlo-Ewe land occupies the south eastern corner of the modern republic in an administrative region known as the volta region.

According to oral history, the Anlo-Ewe people settled at their present home around the later part of the 15th century (1474) after a dramatic escape from Notsie, an ancestral federated region currently within the borders of the modern state of Togo. The escape and subsequent resettlement are commemorated in an annual festival known as Hogbetsotso Za.

Earlier settlements were established along seamless stretches of white sandy beaches of the Atlantic ocean, from what is now the international border between Togo and Ghana and due west to the eastern shores of the Volta river. Names assigned to some of the settlements - Keta, which means "the head of the sand," Denu, which means "the beginning of palm trees" etc. - echoed the natural endowment and beauty of the landscape they were to call home.

The close proximity of the settlements to the sea, however, offered no safety from the frequent raids for slaves by European slave traders who would navigate their ships easily to the shores of the ocean for their human cargos. The memory of these raids and the loss of entire settlement populations have been deeply imprinted on the Anlo-Ewe consciousness through the holdings of oral tradition such as folklore, myths and songs. A mass migration northward and the establishment of lagoon island settlements begun as a necessary security against becoming a slave in some strange land.

The Keta lagoon became central to the early evolution of the Anlo-Ewe traditional state. Its shallow waters were not navigable by the large slave ships and provided a much needed buffer-zone between the settlers and the aggressive slave traders.

Development of small scale marine commercial activities for sustenance began immediately. These activities included the construction of canoes for fishermen who navigated the lagoon for usable fishing sites and canoe landings. Hunters used the canoes to explore other islands and the inlands north of the lagoon for games, drinking water, farm lands and new settlement sites. Farmers shuttled by the canoes between the islands and the fertile inlands to cultivate crops. The canoe shuttle became an important tradition and a major means by which commodities and information flowed freely between the settlements.

Evolution Of Present Community System

Concern about security was a major element in the early history of the settlements. The distribution of the populations on the settlements followed the model of an Anlo-Ewe military culture in which the entire group was divided into three military units for more controllable precision in defense. Members of each unit would establish their homesteads at the geographical position they would defend in battle. Lashibi unit would occupy the west and were often referred to as the left wing. Adotri unit would occupy the central position and Woe unit would settle at the east or the right wing.

In peace, the mostly warlike institutions evolved into institutions of humane and hospitable civilization. The military units became political units and the basis of the present Anlo-Ewe community system. Military commanders became political heads or chiefs of the communities they led in battles within a centralized state system headed by a paramount chief, Awoamefia.

Membership in the community system is controlled by a patrilineal heredity that promotes a strong sense of family within a social, political and economic system of communalism. In this communal pursuit, private initiative or profit is encouraged within the realms of strong social-minded values in which family is the heart of the community and neighbors care about each other. A civilization that promotes the wish for the integration of the complex fundamental disposition of mankind. Nobody is allowed to cheat the other. The weak, the strong, the young and old all constitute an integral whole in the complex fabric of life in pursuit of a collective destiny. The most distinctive institutional result is trust, honor, compassion, sacrifice and a desire to share some part of themselves with others.

In this new political culture, the warlike past is only visible in the institution of chieftaincy as memorabilia of the heroic past or in the regalia of chiefs as symbols of their royal rights or prerogatives.

Dance-drumming is an integral part of this community life and an important necessity in the pursuit of the collective destiny, perhaps the essence of their shared experience. Everybody participates. Non participation amounts to self excommunication from society as a whole and carries with it severe consequences in a similar manner as non performance of some civic obligations in other cultures of the world.

The most severe penalty for non participation is to be denied a proper burial. Receiving a good burial is extremely important to the Anlo-Ewe. In contrast to other societies of the world that demonstrate the importance of having a good burial by buying funeral insurance from commercial funeral homes, the participation of the Anlo-Ewe in the collective and shared experiences of the community is the only insurance towards receiving the proper burial.

Structure Of Dance-Drumming Community

The degree of participation by each individual, however, varies and reflects a hierarchy of relative importance among the performers. This hierarchy has the elders at the top representing the chiefs and the leadership of the community. The male elders are called vumegawo and the female elders are called vudadawo. Their principal role is to provide a source of authority and advice insuring an orderly and systematic performance according to the shared traditions of the community and the entire traditional state.

The second level of the hierarchy is held by the composer (hesino), the master arts man, who is responsible for the creation of the distinct texture that forms the characteristic dance-drumming style. He is followed directly by the lead drummer (azaguno), another master arts man, who guides the entire ensemble in performing the various shared traditions of good dance-drumming.

The next level of the hierarchy includes: (a) Tonuglawo (ring-leaders), consisting of some more experienced participants with leadership potentials, who inspire and exhort the performers along the performance arena and provide them with examples that they emulate. (b) Haxiawo (supporting song leaders), who assist the composer in leading and directing the singing. (c) Kadawo, the whips of the musical community who enforce discipline and secure the attendance of the community members at every performance.

The fifth level of the hierarchy is occupied by the supporting drummers who assist the lead drummer in the performance of the various musical guidelines. The rest of the ensemble occupies the lowest level of the hierarchy. Their main roles are to sing, dance, and at times accompany themselves with rattles and hand claps.

The Religious Culture

Anlo-Ewe dance-drumming repertoire evolved as an essential component of three key cultures - thereligious culture, the military culture and the social culture.

The religious culture embodies the knowledge about divinities, their devotional activities, the nature of the universe or the living environment and more especially, the principles of divine or moral state of living.

The Anlo-Ewe conceives the universe as consisting of dynamic forces which are constantly influencing each other. Mankind, in both the living (visible) and non-living (invisible) states, animals, vegetables and minerals all possess this vital force in varying amounts. As a result of the constant interaction of these forces, which at times affects human existence in negative ways, it becomes necessary for mankind to gain the knowledge and use of these natural forces in influencing his or her own existence. Hence, instead of events occurring by chance or arising from unknown causes, these events could be controlled to occur at the intention and necessity of mankind.

Everything among the Anlo-Ewe has a spiritual meaning or is understood in a spiritual sense. For example, the birth of a new life, puberty of the adolescent and the marriage of the young adult are attributed to some divine goodwill. Sickness, death and other misfortunes are ascribed to some divine intervention. Performance of devotional activities to the divinities and the development of some principles of divine or moral state of living rank at the top of Anlo-Ewe hierarchy of values.

At the top of Anlo-Ewe hierarchy of divinities is Mawuga Kitikata, the Great and Overall God. Prayers requesting blessings from the divine world often begin with the following text: "Mawuga kitikata, adanuwoto be ye woashi kple afo" which translated freely means "The great and overall God, the great craft-person who creates hands and feet." Mawuga Kitikata is believed to be everywhere and does not require a shrine and devotional activities. Devotional activities are performed through other lower ranking divinities to Mawuga Kitikata.

The next ranking Anlo-Ewe divinity is Togbui Nyigbla, the divine protector of the traditional state, its people and the Anlo-Ewe chieftaincy stool, the most sacred symbol of royal authority among the Anlo-Ewe.

Afã is among the favorites of Anlo-Ewe divinities. Afã is popularly known as Kpoli (destiny) or "divinity of divination" and fulfills, among other things, the human desire to peep a little into the future through the art of divination.

Yeve is another revered divinity. Popularly known as "Tohono" or "divinity of thunder," Yeve often uses the forces of thunder and lightening in revealing concerns and anger.

Dance-drumming is a key element of the religious culture and each divinity offers a distinct repertoire for various devotional activities. These devotional activities include: rite of consecration or medium of centering oneself in the divine spirit, rite of invocation or yearning for spiritual communion with the divinity and rite of gratitude, reverence and respect for the divinity.

Military Culture

The military culture embodies various institutions and skills devoted to the security of the traditional state, its people and values. The most important elements of the military culture are the three military units in which the entire population was regimented. (see structure of community)

In the military culture, the dance-drumming repertoire, among other things, assumes the responsibility for the emotional and spiritual preparedness of the population for battle. For example, the repertoire of Atrikpui dance-drumming is replete with centuries of valued Anlo-Ewe war-fighting tactics and military codes of honor. Through the text, texture and choreography of Atrikpui, the military valor and skill (prowess) of ancestral heroes are invoked in exhorting their descendants to emulate.

Sanctity of human life is the most cherished moral value among the Anlo-Ewe. Taking human life is a taboo. This value is enshrined as an essential component of a normal state of mental health.

By the nature of this breeding, the Anlo-Ewe believes warfare has devastating consequences for both the victor and the vanquished. Lost of human lives is the most severe consequence. Degrees of emotional disorder suffered by the warriors as a result of breaking the sacred taboo of not taking human life are other critical consequences.

Through the text, texture and choreography of Atrikpui dance-drumming, the warriors are also provided with the training and skill of reconciling themselves with breaking the sacred taboo before going into battle.

Another ancestral dance-drumming repertoire of the military culture is Atamga, "The Great Oath." Atamga derived its name from the highest oath of loyalty and patriotism among the Anlo-Ewe. Its text, choreography and texture drew directly from valued Anlo-Ewe war-fighting tactics, memorable military operations and the prowess of traditional heroes in dramatic and inspirational dance-drumming episodes.

Atamga's institutional responsibilities included, the military preparedness of warriors for battle and debriefing warriors for a smooth transition into normal life after battle.

During the last three centuries, the Anlo-Ewe traditional state evolved gradually into a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors and the institutional functions of Atamga also was modified. The name was changed to Agbeko which means "lives are safe" and was dedicated to the pursuit of peace through a spirited remembrance of the horrors of warfare.

Social Culture

The social culture includes institutions devoted to the development of the Anlo-Ewe human infrastructure and the welfare of the people.

Communal enculturation of every Anlo-Ewe starts from infancy and comes to climax with ceremonies and rites ushering the youth into adulthood. The enculturation process begins at the dawn of the seventh day of birth with rites and ceremonies known as "ame-hehe-de-go". "Ame-hehe-de-go" literary means outdooring a person. The major activities of "ame-hehe-de-go" include, the formal naming of a baby, introducing the baby to community and community accepting a collective guardianship.

Rite of amedzodzo or reincarnation is the next major communal activity of the enculturation process. In Anlo-Ewe belief, every new born child is a partial rebirth of an old ancestral soul in a new body. Through intense divinations, soon after birth, the ancestral soul making a new beginning is identified along with other vital information that would guide in achieving a long and happy life.

Entering puberty is another critical period of the ongoing communal assimilation into the cultural tradition of society. The young child has developed the capability of reproducing sexually and must know the social responsibilities of that biological maturity.

Puberty rites known as "nugbeto" is the communal forum in which the Anlo-Ewe female acquires the knowledge of the social responsibilities of this critical biological transition. Very respected female members of the community are the officiating elders. Their wisdom, life experience, self-esteem and self confidence provide good role models for the young adults.

The traditions of occupational groups are other vital elements of the social culture. These groups are devoted to the development of the skill and resources to sustain the occupational activities of the Anlo-Ewe. Major occupational activities include, hunting, farming, fishing, and manufacturing of a traditional cloth called kente.

Generational group activities, such as clubs organized by the youth as social platforms for expressing their perspectives on virtually every aspect of the collective agenda, are the final dimensions of the social culture. These clubs are the fermenting ground of new ideas and musical innovations as the youth prepare to take over from their parents one day.

Drums and Drumming

© Copyright 1995 C. K. Ladzekpo
All Rights Reserved

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Richard Hodges